This week it is Banned Books Week. This is an event that aims to increase awareness of, and challenge, censorship of literature. It speaks out for the freedom to read. Check out the American Library Association’s website for information on frequently challenged books – many of the titles on the lists will surprise you. And banning books is not something of the past, Rainbow Rowell’s popular YA novel Eleanor & Park has been challenged recently. Check out this interview.
One concern frequently raised for these challenged books is that they are unsuitable for the age group. However which age group they are supposedly unsuitable for is not specified. Most books will be unsuitable for a certain age group – be it for reasons of subject or simply reading levels and vocabulary. Also it is important to note that the actual readers of books are often younger than those the author intended it to be for. When growing up, we tend to read about characters who are older than us. This can be problematic for authors (an issue I heard Anna Carey raise at an IBBY Ireland event, speaking about her Rebecca series) – how do you create a convincing and honest 14 year old (for example) who is suitable for 12 year old readers?
So in the spirit of Banned Books Week, here is my defence of some of the most frequently challenged books of recent years:
To Kill A Mockingbird – Harper Lee
For me, this was a big surprise. Here in Ireland To Kill A Mockingbird is pretty much the staple text for Junior Cert exam students. Most people I know studied this text when they were 14 or 15. I didn’t, I actually only read Harper Lee’s classic this year, at the age of 20. In 2011 it was number 10 on the top ten most challenged books, and it came in at number 4 in 2009. Reasons stated were offensive language and racism. This seems puzzling to me, given that it is a book about tolerance and acceptance, and learning to overcome our prejudices.
“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”
It is a book that encourages non-violent protest, and standing up against the wrongs of society. It is about fighting for what’s right, even when you’re outnumbered.
“Real courage is when you know you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what.”
Another reason stated for banning this book, is that it was unsuitable for the age group. It does have heavy themes – racism, accusations of rape – but these are the kind of things young people tend to hear about in the news. A book offers a safe environment to explore the horrors of racism, and to find a role model like Atticus Finch whose open-minded attitude is an example to us all.
Looking for Alaska – John Green
In 2012, Looking for Alaska came in at number 7 on the list of most frequently challenged books. The reasons stated for the challenges were that the language was offensive, the book was sexually explicit, and that it was considered to be unsuitable for the age group.
Language – yes, there is a lot of potentially offensive language used in Looking for Alaska. But this is part of what makes Green’s characters so honest and real. Some people curse, the same can be said of some characters. And instead of focussing on the offensive language in this book, I would encourage readers to focus on the eloquence of John Green’s writing.
Perhaps one of the best known quotes from Looking for Alaska is this metaphor:
“if people were rain, I was drizzle and she was a hurricane.”
This is a deeply thoughtful book, one that mulls over many of the mysteries of religion – of an afterlife, of being, of suffering.
“There were so many of us who would have to live with things done and things left undone that day. Things that did not go right, things that seemed okay at the time because we could not see the future. If only we could see the endless string of consequences that result from our smallest actions. But we can’t know better until knowing better is useless.”
Sexuality – I cannot argue with this point. Looking for Alaska is sexually explicit. This is one of the many reasons why it is a book for older teenagers. However, it is not a book about sex. It is a book with sex in it. Again this is part of what makes the characters who they are.
On his website, John Green says:
“I wanted to write about sexuality and substance abuse because it felt true to the characters, who are in many ways more screwed up and self-destructive than the characters in my other books.”
“It seemed to me pretty obvious that I was arguing against vapid sexual encounters.”
I wouldn’t recommend this book to younger readers of John Green’s work, but I do think it is definitely one to read when you’re older. It is more sexually explicit than any of his other books – I reckon that The Fault In Our Stars (arguably his best known work) is perfectly suitable for readers aged 14/15. Looking for Alaska is perhaps more suited to readers who are over 16. Obviously this varies from person to person, which is what makes age banding such a complicated notion (more on that later.)
If you need convincing to read the book, check out 25 reasons why Holly (blogger at NutFreeNerd) loves it.
The Perks of Being A Wallflower – Stephen Chbosky
The Perks of Being A Wallflower is a dark book. There’s no getting around that – it deals with heavy themes, and it’s pretty hard-hitting. With the recent film adaptation, a new generation of readers will be introduced to the book. First, and perhaps the most important point, this is not a book for children. It deals with sexuality, drugs, suicide, abuse and many other themes. It’s often to be found in the adult section of bookshops, though it is for young adults too.
My defence against most of the charges against The Perks of Being A Wallflower are that it is a very honest book, about very real things that happen. This is what makes it such a powerful book – the rawness of Charlie’s voice, and his gradual realisation of what is going on around him, and what has happened in the past. It is a depressing read (I finished it on the bus, and was fighting back tears) but the end is also hopeful.
“Please believe that things are good with me, and even when they’re not, they will be soon enough. And I will always believe the same about you.”
One of the reasons I love this book is that I think it captures the uncertainty of being a teenager, the feeling that you’re different and that you don’t fit in, the struggle to find out who you are.
“Just tell me how to be different in a way that makes sense.”
“I am both happy and sad at the same time, and I’m still trying to figure out how that could be.”
The Perks of Being A Wallflower is not an easy read, but it is an incredibly moving one. It is a book I will never forget, and one I would highly recommend to older teens.
“And in that moment, I swear we were infinite.”
Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling
How could anyone want to ban Harry Potter? Yet it reached number 2 on the list of frequently challenged books in 2003. The reason given was ‘occult/Satanism’. Children’s intelligence is, in my opinion, often underrated. However, I think we can all agree that kids are quite capable of distinguishing between fiction and reality. Wishing to go to Hogwarts does not make one a Satanist, nor display a dangerous interest in the occult. It is a perfectly innocent show of imagination, and engagement with the magical world Rowling has crafted. Harry Potter fans have displayed such creativity – just look at the fanfiction, fan art, tumblrs, music and more – and it is clear that the series has inspired many.
In 2002, Harry Potter topped the list of most challenged books. In addition to concerns about the magical side of the story, the violent side of the books were an issue. The series definitely gets darker from book 4 on, but the messages the books espouse are wholesome. They preach the importance of love, friendship, and courage. In the end, good triumphs over evil, and we see the value of fighting for what is right.
“It is our choices Harry, that show who we truly are, far more than our abilities” – Albus Dumbledore
As well as the positive messages given by the books, they are also a fantastic magical adventure, one which every reader deserves to experience.
“Hogwarts will always be there to welcome you home” – J.K. Rowling
To finish, a few thoughts on censorship:
Books should not be banned.
- This is not to say that we should not exercise caution – particularly with regard to what children are reading. I worry about my younger sisters, and I know I have read some books earlier than I should have. My suggestion – to parents, guardians, teachers, older siblings – is a simple one: read the book yourself first. It’s the best way to be sure a book is suitable, and sharing books with your child/sibling is a wonderful experience.
- Everyone is different. We all have different levels of experience and maturity, we read at different levels. This is why age banding is such a problematic issue. Some of us read books intended for older readers, or vice versa. But being capable of reading a book is not the same thing as being able for the themes it covers. I love Hot Key Books method of labelling their books – here’s a great post by Gabby, a 15 year old who interned with them, about age restrictions
- As the Banned Books Week people say – we need freedom to read, to think, and to explore issues through books.
If you’ve read the books I’ve discussed, what are your views on them? And which banned books would you defend?